Hawaii Embracing ocean life at Andaz Maui By Shane Nelson / October 14, 2013 Share 1 -- No bigger than a tennis ball, and fringed with a flurry of constricting arms, the rust-colored octopus wrapped around my wrist didn't want to let go. The little sea creature had been carried up from a hole in the coral only a few moments earlier by my guide for the morning, Kekoa Cramer, a Valley Isle native working for the Andaz Maui resort's beach crew. Snorkeling a short kayak paddle from Mokapu Beach, which fronts the new, 15-acre Wailea property, we were exploring one of Cramer's favorite reefs for octopuses. "They're so smart," he told me later. "When they hear a commotion, like if something hits the bottom or they feel water hit up against the reef differently, they'll stick their heads outside their hole to see what's going on [and] play peekaboo." Spotting that peeking behavior requires a well-trained eye, because an octopus can not only alter its coloring but also its shape to mimic its surroundings. I've been snorkeling for years in Hawaii but had never seen an octopus in the ocean before. Cramer, on the other hand, started diving on Maui with his father around age 6 and is referred to by some of his co-workers as the "octopus whisperer." "There's certainly no guarantee that I'll find one every day," he said. "But that's something I love to share with people, [and] it's so awesome to see their faces when they get to hold an octopus." Providing a range of ocean activities, including outrigger canoe tours, kayaking and snorkeling combinations, standup paddleboard and surf lessons, folks at the Andaz Maui at Wailea believe offering safe access to the Pacific is key to providing guests an authentic experience. "If you come to Maui or just Hawaii in general, and you don't give the ocean a chance, I think you're really missing something," said Michael Stephens, general manager for the Andaz Maui, which opened last month. Stephens concedes, of course, that the ocean isn't for every visitor but told me the hotel's beach crew really takes pride in helping people overcome that common feeling of intimidation. "We want to make you feel comfortable enough that you might try something you wouldn't otherwise experience," he said. "And swimming with a sea turtle is something you won't ever forget." Cramer and Stephens also described extraordinarily close encounters with humpback whales while out on different occasions in the Andaz's outrigger canoes."When you see these whales up close and personal, you realize how human you really are," Stephens said with a laugh. "We had one that swam beneath our canoe, and it was like a house moving underneath us." Officials at the 297-room Andaz Maui, the Hyatt brand's first resort, hope to attract travelers not only with a stunning beachfront location and top-notch access to the Valley Isle's warm oceans but also with a hip, casual atmosphere married to sleek, contemporary design. "It's definitely now my favorite resort in Hawaii," said Danny Dobrott, who works for the online travel site Room77.com and spent a week at the Andaz Maui earlier this month. "I really like the more modern feel, and I think younger travelers will love the place." Home to five pools, including a cascading trio of infinity-edge basins and an adults-only facility, the resort features the 14,000-square-foot Awili Spa, two stand-alone bars, a 24-hour gourmet market, the locally sourced Ka'ana Kitchen and the highly anticipated Morimoto Maui, the namesake of celebrity chef Masaharu Morimoto scheduled to open later this fall. And affluent travelers will certainly want to consider the Andaz Maui villa products: two-, three-, and four-bedroom residential units with private plunge pools or Jacuzzis, full gourmet kitchens and sprawling outdoor lanais equipped with stainless-steel barbecues. "The villas are stunning," Dobrott said. "They're even closer to the beach with beautiful views of the ocean, [and] they're definitely for VIPs, Hollywood celebrities, dot-com people — folks with money to burn." Stephens said he also expects the property to announce its official silver classification as a LEED-certified resort later this fall, making it the first in Hawaii to earn the energy and environmental design distinction. Formerly a Renaissance property, the decision to renovate within that hotel's existing skeleton was made, at least in part, with conservation in mind. "We could have just torn the building down," Stephens explained. "And in some cases, that might have been the better thing to do, but we kept the vast majority of this facility and through that process we saved a lot of resources." Standard rooms at the Andaz Maui at Wailea start at $409 a night, while villas begin at $6,500. Visit www.maui.andaz.hyatt.com.Mixing it upThe Valley Isle's newest full-service spa facility not only merges traditions, it also offers guests a chance to mix up their own scrubs, lotions and oils before a body or beauty treatment. Meaning to blend or entwine in Hawaiian, the Awili Spa, a 10-treatment-room facility at the new Andaz Maui at Wailea resort, houses a collection of locally sourced ingredients -- such as coconut, mango, peppermint and brown sugar -- that guests can select, along with an apothecary consultant, to blend their own unique spa products. "Instead of farm to table, it's really farm to treatment," explained Michael Stephens, the Andaz Maui general manager. "The experience is about taking beautiful, fresh, organic products from this island and having them connect with guests in a meaningful way, so you really understand what's being put on your body." Part of a tradition-inspired Awili experience called Spa Omakase, which means faith in yourself in Japanese, guests create their customized oils, lotions and scrubs before 60- or 90-minute treatments, but the ingredients and their ratios are recorded on a digital recipe card, enabling them to be re-created on return visits. "We can even send you that scrub in the mail later if it's something you really love," Stephens said. -- S.N.